My musings on the mainstream media and culture.

Thoughts on my Percocet-laden Modern Family Binge

So, for the last few weeks I’ve been dealing with some severely painful headaches.  Percocet helps, which means I spent quite a bit of time last week planted hazily on my couch, renting old episodes of Modern Family.

I’ve only started watching Modern Family recently.  I enjoy it, although I must say that after about ten straight episodes, these people seem excruciatingly whiny.  (Which is probably true about spending excessive amounts of time with non-sitcom people too, so I suppose you can’t hold it against them entirely.)

As my Percocet haze has lifted, I’ve found myself thinking about the merits of the show.  To what degree is Modern Family a progressive representation of American life, and to what degree is it the more of the same-old-same-old mainstream ideological sitcom formula?  I definitely dig the “modern families have changed” vibe that includes a gay family (hooray!) and a multicultural, multigenerational family.  This is certainly not the Brady Bunch, both because of the diversity and because this family deals with real issues beyond what Mom will say about her broken vase.  (Claire, presumably, would be none too happy.)

So here are my Percocet-laden thoughts on the ideology of Modern Family.  Like all ideological thoughts (with or without Percocet), these are up for interpretation, and I’d love to hear what you have to say.

Modern Family and First World Problems

Let’s start with a way that this show doesn’t transcend mainstream sitcom ideology at all, and that is the fact that the three intertwined family are upper middle class.  They all have massive homes in one of the most expensive real estate markets in America.  Since the onset of TV families, it’s always been very much the norm for families to have lots of stuff.  Advertisers have deliberately pushed for that.  The consequence is that our sense of what counts as “middle class” and what we need to be normal has become inflated, and consumerism in American life has exploded.

Both of the middle-aged women on the show are homemakers, as are rotating members of the gay couple.  While this says something about gender, in this day and age it also says quite a bit about class status.  In my non-sitcom life, almost all the two-parent families with kids I know either (a) have both parents working and struggling with work-life balance, or (b) have one parent at home and struggling with financial issues.  It’s a privilege to be able to choose stay-at-home parenthood without serious financial consequences. This Modern Family has this privilege.

I think that’s why some of the incessant whininess of this show annoys me so much.  While it’s enjoyable to see people bicker about everyday stuff that we all bicker about, it really is about First World Problems for these people — and upper middle class First World Problems at that.  Imagine how much more real this show would be if some of the bickering was about the kinds of economic problems real Modern Families have.  What if Gloria was struggling with whether she should leave a job that she needs to support her near-retirement husband to take care of her baby?  What if Claire and Phil had to struggle with finding money to pay for their three kids’ college education?

Cam and Mitch

Cam and Mitch, more than not, represent progress.  Ten years ago, you wouldn’t see these guys as main characters, and with a child to boot.  They talk and joke about being gay, and sometimes they’re affectionate.  I live in a state where we’ve just defeated a hateful Constitutional amendment to define marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman.  This is one reason why Modern Family is way more than “just entertainment.”  Normalizing gay families is about promoting human rights.

Are they stereotypical?  I’m not sure.  They could be worse (like on The New Normal, which I’ll probably blog about one of these days).  I think the most stereotypical thing about them is that they whine all the time at each other.  Granted, all the characters on this show are pretty whiny, but these two seem to be in a league of their own.  They do seem to be well-developed characters, and complexity can transcend stereotype.

I do think it’s noteworthy that they’re not involved at all in GLBT politics.  On one episode, Cam said, “Oh, so now you’re getting political?  We leave town during Pride because we hate the traffic.”  Wouldn’t it be cool to see Cam and Mitchell take Lily to a Pride parade? Or maybe if the whole family went? It would probably involve some annoying bickering about what Lily should wear and other Modern Family whininess, but what a potential funny and wonderfully progressive episode this would be.

Beauty and Modern Family

It’s pretty much TV dogma that people have to be gorgeous and thin.  Especially women and girls.  So I find it interesting and disturbing that this show allows for some of the characters to look less like models and more like real people.  By “some of the characters,” I mean the male characters.

There’s two adolescent boys on this show, and they both look like real adolescent boys.  Manny is overweight.  Luke is just plain awkward.  But look at their two female counterparts, who are both gorgeous and thin — and TINY, to the degree that it’s unrealistic that the taller actors who play their parents could have sired these kids.  Just what America girls need, right — more 100-pound role models to emulate.  Wouldn’t it be great if all the kids could be a little awkward looking — you know, like real teenagers?

I do love Alex, the brainy 14-year-old.  By far she’s my favorite character, and it’s great to hear her throw in assorted (pseudo-)feminist comments now and then.  But if you’re casting for a sitcom and you want a brainy girl, what do you do?  Pick a gorgeous, tiny actress and throw on some GLASSES.  Oh, and give her an androgynous name to boot.  Haley, I have to say, I just don’t get.  Maybe I haven’t seen enough of the show yet, but so far she seems to be a walking collage of stereotypes about a pretty teenage girls who like to shop.

And the two middle-aged women are MILFs, of course.  I find Claire’s insecurity about Gloria’s looks a little hard to believe, considering how gorgeous Claire is.  Claire’s sweats are kind of like Alex’s glasses — it’s a wardrobe mechanism for denoting “not gorgeous” status to a character played by a gorgeous actress.  As for the men, Phil has TV good looks, I suppose, but the other three men are pretty average looking, and Cam is overweight.


Oh, Gloria.  I don’t even know what to say.  Is it too simplistic to point out how stereotypical she is?  Is it mandatory that in every episode she declare that, “In Colombia we do (insert bizarre and possibly violent behavior).” Is it too simplistic to make the power feminism critique that she’s a strong, outspoken women — but only at the same time that she uses her body and looks to get what she wants?  Ina recent episode, she helps her husband get his way on a closet-related building issue by telling the picky client how much she loves the closet — and presents this appeal to the client half-naked.  I’m not sure this even counts as empowering from a power feminist point of view.  It’s downright disturbing.

I like Gloria.  She is outspoken.  But wasn’t there a way for the writers to create a cross-cultural marriage without so much stereotype about the over-the top, sexy, colorful Latina?

I don’t know what to make of the intergenerational thing either.  Is Gloria a trophy wife?  The dynamic between Jay and Gloria is one of the more interesting things on the show, so I would hesitate to dismiss their relationship to this degree.  But he’s certainly the more powerful one in the relationship economically.

Alright, that’s enough for now.  Please leave comments!  I’d really love to discuss the cultural implications of this show with you.  Percocet optional.

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5 thoughts on “Thoughts on my Percocet-laden Modern Family Binge

  1. Jolynn Nelson on said:

    Loved your characterization of Modern Family. You hit on something important to me with your comment on the size of the homes and the whiny reality of the sitcom’s first world problems. It is easy to believe that everyone lives like that and there is something wrong when reality doesn’t match what is seen on TV. If I find myself with a bit of house or lifestyle envy after watching TV, what does that mean and how might that affect my choices?

  2. Pingback: » Some deep thoughts (maybe) on the modern family… The Fat Chick Chronicles

  3. AKA The BeerLady on said:

    Hmmm, interesting. Admittedly, I can’t comment much on ‘Modern Family,’ because I’ve managed not to watch that one myself. But your comment, “Since the onset of TV families, it’s always been very much the norm for families to have lots of stuff” did get me to thinking (always a dangerous thing). I actually started to write a ridiculous long comment before I figured out you might not want a novel in the comment section. So I turned it into a blog post of my own LOL. Anyway, I tried to poke holes in your theory, but I wasn’t exactly successful…. If you’re crazy enough to find it of interest (maybe take another percocet, it might help), it’s at

    By the way – excellent choice of topics! I can hardly wait to see what comes next.

  4. Michael Mackey on said:

    Excellent criticism, fun read, and you write as powerfully as ever. I suspect that one of the problems with all of the stereotyped characters is the sitcom genre. Easy to get laughs by exploiting stereotypes. The “best” representations of gay characters (where they are normal human beings and not comic buffoons) are always in the genre of drama: “Brothers and Sisters,” “Dawson’s Creek”

  5. What an interesting, thoughtful blog! Well done.

    We (I and my 22-year-old daughter) have become Modern Family fans. I have not watched it critically. I have viewed it first and foremost as a light-hearted comedy, rather than as social criticism. In earlier seasons, I was impressed with the pithy, concise writing. I’m not sure that it’s lived up to that this year.

    I think you are underestimating Gloria, however. Yes, I am a male. But I still think of the number of times we see her changing the direction of a conversation by calling attention to the elephant in the room. Her husband can’t match that, and I love the honest directness. Let’s see what we get tomorrow night.

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